ANCHORAGE - Backers of the Knik Arm bridge are preparing to issue a request for proposals for construction that they plan to send out by late January.
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Meanwhile, federal officials are working against an April deadline on whether to propose listing beluga whales in Cook Inlet as an endangered species.
Some 180,000 comments, which overwhelmingly supported listing the belugas for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, must be analyzed.
URS Corp., a global engineering design firm headquartered in San Francisco, was charged under a contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service to catalog all comments. URS is part of one of two consortiums that have expressed strong interest in building the bridge.
Dale Paulson, Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority project manager for the National Environmental Policy Act document being developed by the authority, said that he doesn't see the belugas as being an issue, whether listed or not. Some 30 percent of the design work has been completed.
"We probably have as good a knowledge base about what is going on with the belugas as anyone," he said Nov. 12. "As near as we can tell, (the bridge) won't affect the belugas at all, except during construction. During construction, those mitigation issues are already in the EIS (environmental impact statement) and described."
The Federal Highway Administration, however, has yet to give its stamp of approval to a final EIS, a situation that doesn't sit well with authority Chairman George Wuerch. Still, Wuerch said, "we know from the research already that there are times of the year when there are no whales present. If there are no whales present, will driving a pile impact whales who are not there?"
Wuerch said the question of impact on the belugas would ultimately be answered when the authority starts getting the permits for construction.
"The belugas are going to be a huge issue even if it is not listed (as endangered), because we want that population to recover, and we need to work around it," he said.
Cook Inlet beluga whales are a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population whose numbers have plummeted by half over the past decade. The National Marine Fisheries Service recently proposed that they be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.